Kennedy, Pagan 1962- (Pamela Kennedy)
Kennedy, Pagan 1962- (Pamela Kennedy)
Born September 7, 1962, in Washington, DC; daughter of Gordon (an economist) and Joan (a homemaker) Kennedy. Education: Wesleyan University, B.A., 1984; Johns Hopkins University, M.A., 1988.
Publisher of Pagan's Head magazine, 1988-93; Village Voice, New York, NY, columnist, 1990-93; Voice Literary Supplement, "zine" columnist, 1991—; freelance writer. Adjunct instructor, Boston College, 1995—. Former copy editor, PC Week. Host of Boston-based cable television show. Recycling and antiwar activist.
National Endowment for the Arts fiction grant, 1993; Orange Prize shortlist, for Spinsters; New York Times Notable Book selection, 2002, and Massachusetts Book Award Honor in Nonfiction, both for Black Livingstone.
AS PAGAN KENNEDY
Stripping and Other Stories, High Risk Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Platforms: A Microwaved Cultural Chronicle of the 1970s, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1994.
Spinsters (novel), High Risk Books (New York, NY), 1995.
'Zine: How I Spent Six Years of My Life in the Underground and Finally Found Myself, St. Martin's Griffin (New York, NY), 1995.
Pagan Kennedy's Living: A Handbook for Maturing Hipsters, St. Martin's Griffin (New York, NY), 1997.
The Exes (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.
Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in Nineteenth-Century Congo, Viking (New York, NY), 2002.
Confessions of a Memory Eater (novel), Leapfrog Press (Wellfleet, MA), 2006.
The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth Century Medical Revolution, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to periodicals, including Interview, New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine, Nation, Mademoiselle, Women's Review of Books, Mirabella, and Voice Literary Supplement.
Columns and articles about pop culture by Pagan Kennedy have been printed frequently in periodicals like the Voice Literary Supplement, as well as in Kennedy's self-published fanzine, Pagan's Head. Considered an "insightful" chronicler of popular trends and fashions by a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, Kennedy interprets deeper meanings behind fads of the 1970s in the book Platforms: A Microwaved Cultural Chronicle of the 1970s. In addition, Kennedy's short fiction, which can be found in such literary journals as The Quarterly, is collected in the book Stripping and Other Stories.
Suggesting that clever marketing strategies were responsible for selling "hipness" to the American public, Kennedy cites in Platforms the example of "Earth shoes"—consumers, guided through advertising and promotion, formed the impression that Earth shoes "had something to do with nature." Other aspects of the 1970s are discussed in Platforms as well, such as the social and political forces which influenced trends in television and film. In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer applauded Platforms as a "hilarious, highly personalized history of what may be the goofiest of modern decades."
Many of the short stories in Stripping and other Stories describe epiphanies in the lives of various females. In "The Tunnel," Kennedy tells of a young girl's newfound feeling of satisfaction after she lies to her father. "Most of Kennedy's stories, regardless of time or place, record the loss of innocence by young women and girls who don't necessarily regret their passage into adulthood," commented a critic in Kirkus Reviews, who termed Stripping and other Stories "a winning collection." Other stories, such as "The Black Forest"—in which a university student studies German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche for the first time—lead a female character to a moment of transformation. Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Chris Goodrich wrote that, in Kennedy's fiction, "smart young women [attempt] to make sense of a perplexing world, one not so much hostile as unpredictable and indifferent." In the New York Times Book Review, Katherine Ramsland pointed out that certain stories in Stripping and Other Stories, such as "The Black Forest," "reveal a rare talent for tussling with life's disquieting problems."
Stripping and Other Stories was followed by Kennedy's debut novel, Spinsters. The book is set in the 1960s and follows two unmarried sisters in their thirties. The women have devoted their young adulthood to caring for their widowed father; with his death, Doris and Frannie set out on a road trip from Virginia to Arizona. Doris is portrayed as the more freewheeling of the sisters, while narrator Frannie is still shy around men. The women's social and sexual awakening during the turbulent summer of 1968 forms the basis of the story, one that Whitney Scott of Booklist characterized as "gentle, sensitive, and lyrical." A Publishers Weekly contributor acknowledged that some modern-day readers may take exception to Frannie's self-discovery emerging through her feelings for a man, but also felt that "such criticism is ultimately shallow, as this creative, witty and subtly adventuresome character is able to treat her sexual coming-of-age as yet another wonderful discovery."
Research for Spinsters took Kennedy, who was a small child during the era in which the story is set, into the world of the 1960s. "I did a lot of reading," she told Jacket reporter Noel King. "I relied heavily on William Manchester's The Power and the Glory. I had to research things like what cigarettes they'd be smoking, and with rationing during the war, what would you have and not have. And the father as a conscientious objector." Spinsters is more a character-driven than plot-driven novel. "I admire books that are driven by plot," she elaborated in King's interview, "but it just didn't work. I had made my main character much more prudish in the beginning so it always felt like I was fighting against her, taking her by the shoulders and saying ‘you go over here now! Do that! Do this!’ I felt like I was at war with my main character…. [So] I took out a lot of the plot stuff and really tried to follow what she wanted to do, so that the things that happened seemed natural in relation to her."
The year Spinsters was published, 1995, also marked the release of a Kennedy memoir. 'Zine: How I Spent Six Years of My Life in the Underground and Finally Found Myself recounts the author's days as the creator of Pagan's Head, a "'Zine"—a "crudely produced, photocopied newsletter," in the words of Publishers Weekly interviewer Ivan Kreilkamp—that Kennedy wrote, edited, laid out, copied and distributed herself. The purpose of her zine, Kennedy remarked in the book, was to "procrastinate, to trick people into liking me, to get dates, to turn myself into a star, and to transform my boring life into an epic story. And the scary thing was, it worked." 'Zine is comprised of articles, cartoons and other pieces from Pagan's Head. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that the book, "however well written, is truly ephemera—unless you're a '70s fanatic who obsesses about The Partridge Family." But Booklist's Mike Tribby had a different view. In 'Zine, said Tribby, the author "offers a look at the slacker generation sans the usual belittling and reproof."
"The contrast between 'Zine and Spinsters perfectly captures the two sides of Kennedy's work," stated Kreilkamp in his article. Both books take the idea of a road trip in two very different directions. In 'Zine, Kennedy has a chapter called "Two Copy Editors Tear Up America's Highways: In a Haze of Dope and Diet Coke, Pagan and Virginia Cross the Country." In Spinsters, meanwhile, the genteel sisters "very slowly allow the 1960s to penetrate their sepia-tinted world," as Kreilkamp said.
"I have two sides to my writing," Kennedy told King. "One is the urban hipster sort of life I'm involved in and the other is this baroque southern side of my family." If Spinsters evoked the baroque, then Kennedy's second novel, The Exes, landed squarely on the side of the hipsters. The Exes is set in the underground rock-music community in Boston; the title band is made up of men and women who used to date each other. The novel's four sections are each narrated by a different band member; in this way, The Exes, like Spinsters, follows Kennedy's style of character-driven fiction. Stephen Dubner of the New York Times Book Review thought that dividing the narrative "has the whiff of writing-school cleverness about it," but still concluded that "Kennedy's writing rarely flags, and you can't help falling for her characters."
Kennedy offers a biography of African American missionary William Henry Sheppard in Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in Nineteenth-Century Congo. Sheppard, who journeyed to the Congo in 1890, spent two decades in Africa, helping to expose the Belgian colonial regime that exploited laborers and committed atrocities. "Kennedy is at her best showing how overt and subtle racial politics shaped Sheppard's mission work at every step," observed Mario Russo in the New York Times Book Review. "Her writing shines, as well, when she's celebrating Sheppard's many achievements." Sheppard tangled with hippos to help feed starving villagers, and he was the first Westerner to gain access to the territory of the aristocratic Kuba tribe. "With his energetic originality, his democratic fire and sweet utopian yearnings, Sheppard comes across in Black Livingstone as the kind of person who might, in a Pagan Kennedy novel set in our own less adventurous era, start a band," Russo stated. "That may be the book's most notable achievement: without losing sight of its subject's seriousness, it manages to turn a 19th-century missionary into something like a rock star."
A middle-aged history professor becomes hooked on a new designer drug in Confessions of a Memory Eater, "a moving portrait of mankind's chronic and untreatable case of folly," wrote Lizzie Skurnick in the New York Times Book Review. Stalled in his career, Win Duncan eagerly accepts the invitation of an old friend to beta-test Mem, a pill that allows users to revisit any moment of their past. According to a Publishers Weekly critic, "Kennedy's easy style masks a fierce intelligence and painstaking artistry in this melancholy midlife crisis-with-a-twist."
In The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth Century Medical Revolution, Kennedy chronicles the relationship between transsexuals Michael Dillon, a medical student, and Roberta Cowell, a former captain in the Royal Air Force. The author "gives us an enlightening tour of how mid-century science conceptualized gender, hormones and transsexual surgery," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kennedy, Pagan, Platforms: A Microwaved Cultural Chronicle of the 1970s, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1994.
Kennedy, Pagan, 'Zine: How I Spent Six Years of My Life in the Underground and Finally Found Myself, St. Martin's Griffin (New York, NY), 1995.
American Book Review, February, 1996, review of Spinsters, p. 25.
Belles Lettres, winter, 1996, review of Spinsters, p. 44.
Booklist, June 1, 1995, Whitney Scott, review of Spinsters, p. 1729; September 15, 1995, Mike Tribby, review of 'Zine, p. 129; July, 1998, Scott, review of The Exes, p. 1857.
Boston, August, 1998, Ken Shulman, review of The Exes, p. 210.
Entertainment Weekly, July 28, 1995, Margot Mifflin, review of Spinsters, p. 56; July 17, 1998, Mifflin, review of The Exes, p. 79.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1993, review of Stripping and Other Stories, p. 1481; April 15, 1995, review of Spinsters, p. 495; July 1, 1995, review of 'Zine, p. 921; June 15, 1998, review of The Exes, p. 832; May 15, 2006, review of Confessions of a Memory Eater, p. 486.
Library Journal, June 15, 1995, David Berona, review of Spinsters, p. 94; June 15, 1998, Keddy Ann Outlaw, review of The Exes, p. 107; February 15, 2002, Edward G. McCormack, review of Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in Nineteenth-Century Congo, p. 159.
Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1995, Erik Himmelsbach, "Enlightenment and the Zen of the 'Zine," p. E1; January 20, 2002, Ben Schrank, "One Man's Crusade," p. R8.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 26, 1994, Chris Goodrich, review of Stripping and Other Stories; July 5, 1998, review of The Exes, p. 11.
New Yorker, August 7, 1995, review of Spinsters, p. 82.
New York Times, January 8, 2002, Dinitia Smith, "A Black Adventurer in the Heart of Darkness," p. B10.
New York Times Book Review, April 24, 1994, Katherine Ramsland, review of Stripping and Other Stories, p. 16; July 23, 1995, Sally Eckhoff, review of Spinsters, p. 14; July 26, 1998, Stephen Dubner, "Boston Rockers"; February 10, 2002, Maria Russo, "Stranger in a Native Land," review of Black Livingstone, p. 7; September 17, 2006, Lizzie Skurnick, "High Time," review of Confessions of a Memory Eater, p. 13.
Publishers Weekly, April 24, 1995, review of Spinsters, p. 68; July 24, 1995, review of 'Zine, p. 59; May 4, 1998, review of The Exes, p. 202; June 29, 1998, Ivan Kreilkamp, "Pagan Kennedy: From 'Zine to Mainstream," p. 31; December 10, 2001, review of Black Livingstone, p. 62; April 17, 2006, review of Confessions of a Memory Eater, p. 161; October 23, 2006, review of The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth Century Medical Revolution, p. 39.
School Library Journal, March, 1999, Susan Woodcock, review of The Exes, p. 231.
Times Literary Supplement, May 17, 1996, Phyllis Richardson, review of Spinsters, p. 24.
Village Voice, January 3, 1995, reviews of Platforms: A Microwaved Cultural Chronicle of the 1970s and Stripping and Other Stories, p. 76.
Washington Post, February 10, 2002, "Witness to Horrors," p. T5.
Washington Post Book World, March 3, 1996, review of 'Zine, p. 12.
Authors Den Web site,http://www.authorsden.com/ (April 8, 2003), Doug Holder, "An Interview with Somerville Novelist, Pagan Kennedy."
Jacket Online,http://www.jacketmagazine.com/ (March 21, 2003), "Noel King Interviews Pagan Kennedy."
Pagan Kennedy Home Page,http://home.comcast.net/~pagankennedy (January 30, 2007).
Richmond Review,http://www.richmondreview.co.uk/ (February 26, 2007), Polly Rance, "A Quick Chat with Pagan Kennedy."